Today is the first day of the rest of your life - it's an expression we're all familiar with. Irritating, in-your-face emotional blackmail - the message that you have to 'move on', 'get on with it', 'get over yourself', 'make a new start'. But for me today marks the first day that I am actually older than my father was when he died. I'm only 59. It makes you think.
My dad was a 40-a-day man - cigarettes not press-ups. He was one of the pre-war generation who started smoking as a teenager and, sadly, became addicted. My memories were of him lighting up a life-saving fag the minute he woke up in the morning - and that pretty much continued throughout the day. Although I detest cigarette smoke now, I don't remember hating it as a child, although the house, and by default I, must have stunk of it. By the time I was in my teens the warnings had started to hit home - cigarettes can kill. Dad's best friend died from lung cancer when I was 14. It didn't seem to make much difference - dad just lit a few more because of the stress of it all.
Ironically he used to collect the coupons from the boxes of Park Drive, which he favoured. You got a catalogue and you could send off for things once you'd collected enough of them. He would let my brother and I choose - it was like being given the Argos book at Christmas! We thought it was brilliant, getting new toys or a hosepipe-holder for free. Hosepipe-holder? Yes dad also loved our rambling garden, with its 40 foot long greenhouse and allotment-sized veg patch. He grew tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, sprouts, spinach, beetroot, runner beans, potatoes and chrysanthemums in abundance - but never carrots or peas (too many slugs and flies). And he loved a bonfire - perhaps it was hiding behind the fetid smoke that made him feel better about igniting yet another fag whilst contemplating the blaze?
Author's own photo
But all good things come to an end. When I was 18 dad was diagnosed with lung cancer, following weeks of a persistent hacking cough. We didn't know what the prognosis was and, for a while, we were hopeful. But after several rounds of chemo it was clear that there was nothing else for it. Life was stubbing him out. He was given three months to live and lasted 11. And so he died exactly a week after his 59th birthday, sitting in his chair with a bottle of his favourite tipple, Tennant's Gold Label Barley Wine, his family by his side. By then the cancer had spread to his brain and, that night, the doctor administered enough morphine to fell an elephant (thanks doc - we really needed that and you helped him to sidestep another few days of gasping for breath, unable to eat or lie down). Despite the proximity of the oxygen tank he still craved cigarettes at the end - an explosive combination.
And today I am 59, one week and one day old. If I'd been my dad I would have died just before midnight yesterday. I thought he was old because I was only 22 when he left us and anyone over 50 was practically a fossil in my book. But he wasn't old was he? He was just about to retire and had everything to live for with a first grandchild on the way. He and mum had also started to travel abroad - just dipping their toes in the warm seas of package holidays in the Balaerics - and they loved it.
It's easy to throw the towel in when life gets tough. I've felt like packing my spotty hanky and heading for the hills many a time. But now having experienced for myself just how far my dad had come, I feel lighter somehow, as if I've passed a significant milestone. I don't want my kids to be as damaged as I was by his premature death. I don't want them to hit their twenties and thirties without a father or mother to guide and listen to them. So I guess I'm just going to have to shoulder my rucky and see how far I get.